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Soil Health Efforts are Proving Themselves: Soil Health Partnership

Data unveiled at 5th annual Soil Health Summit shows soil health efforts are paying off.

For all the talk of soil health the last decade, the long-standing question is, do soil health practices pay?

The Soil Health Partnership has four years of data showing that soil health efforts, such as cover crop adoption, reduced tillage, and advanced nutrient management, do indeed pay off. The organization held its fifth annual Soil Health Summit in St. Louis January 15-16, where it identified some key findings:

  • Soil organic matter increased 0.33% to 0.50% on partner farms during the first few years in the program.
  • By Year 3, SHP partner farms enjoyed a 5% improvement in aggregate stability in no-till plots.
  • No statistical difference in corn or soybean yield in cover crop fields, compared to control fields, based on four years of yield data.

In 2014, the National Corn Growers Association established the Soil Health Partnership as a way to help farmers address soil health concerns, and identify practices that could be practical and beneficial.

The concept was revolutionary at the time: Farmer-partners would collaborate with a trained SHP field manager every step of the way, typically with the help of an agronomist. This process allows farmers to customize how they implement soil health improvements on their farm.

Since then, the SHP has collaborated with 140 farmers in 14 states and one Canadian province to dig into soil health research, specifically cover crop adoption to improve water infiltration, prevent erosion, and prevent nutrient losses; conservation tillage practices to improve soil structure; and advanced nutrient management to reduce nutrient loss to air and water.  

Since initial funding from NCGA, the SHP has since partnered with Bayer Crop Science, the Environmental Defense Fund, Midwest Row Crop Collaborative, and National Wheat Foundation to grow the farmer-led research effort.

The goal of SHP was to give farmers the confidence to adopt soil health practices. Field agents around the Midwest help farmers develop on-farm research with and without cover crops, to ascertain whether cover crops help improve key soil health indicators like improved organic matter, aggregate stability, available water holding capacity, and pH and nutrients.

Thus far, most farmers enrolled in SHP use a corn/soybean crop rotation, although 30% of the farmers have wheat. Sixteen percent use manure, says Maria Bowman, lead scientist for the SHP. Of the on-farm trials conducted, 79% use cover crops, 11% use tillage, 5% use tillage and cover crops, and 5% are nutrient management studies.

In an interview with Successful Farming after the program’s general session, Shefali Mehta, executive director of SHP, says the partnership’s findings are an important step in its mission to solidify soil health practices.

“We’ve been collecting data for several years, but only recently have we gotten to the point where we have a statistically significant number of farms that we can analyze. This really allows us to look at trends that we haven’t been able to before; trends across time, geography, and soil types, so this the first time to share that with a broad audience of famers who have been a part of that effort,” she says.

Having data to support soil health initiatives is vital to widespread adoption of soil health practices. SHP field agents work with farmers to conduct on-farm research trials comparing the soil health practices with more conventional-type farming practices. It takes several years and many farmers to acquire and analyze real data, Mehta adds.

“We just got our data for 2019. Now we can really dig into it and understand what happened over time, and what our farmers are doing right now,” she says. More data from the SHP partner farms will allow the organization to merge into economic and management data, and help farmers understand the “long-term impacts of the choices they made,” she adds.

A farmer’s perspective

Kevin Ross, who farms near Minden, Iowa, was an early partner with the Soil Health Partnership. He is a proponent of what he’s learned so far.

“Cover crops are a challenge,” he says.

They take management, and it’s difficult because of weather extremes from year to year. It’s hard to get them planted when he wants to, or to attain the kind of growth he’d like to see.

“Even with those pieces, you’re still learning from them. Even if they may not have been a success in my own mind, they won’t deter me from continuing to try different things and see what we can get better at,” Ross explains.

The eastern Iowa farmer – who also is first vice president at NCGA – says he’s adopted no-till and now cover crops to keep the soil covered and reduce erosion.

The effort is a long-term commitment, he adds.

“You almost look at it as a new building on the farm. It’s an investment in the long-term future that will be there a significant number of years,” he says. 

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